The Perfect Standard

Feb. 1, 2001
With Bush in place, will the ergonomics storm hit? Brace yourselves.

The Perfect Standard

The ergonomics storm that’s about to hit was created by a number of improbable conditions.

• The ergonomists in OSHA have created an Ergonomics Program Standard, 29 CFR 1910.900 , that is so powerful it will leave most companies awash in confusion and debt.

• Most of Material Handling Management’s readers are engaged in manufacturing, distribution or warehousing — directly in the path of the ergo storm.

• Former President Clinton has signed off on 29 CFR 1910.900, giving it the force of a regulation that demands compliance.

Most companies will be hit by the ergo storm on October 15, by which date they are mandated to implement an extensive musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) communications program.

I don’t say "extensive" glibly. You have to provide each employee, in writing, basic information about MSDs — and their signs and symptoms. (The regulation will tell you what’s a sign versus what’s a symptom.) You also have to explain in writing how important it is to report MSDs and their signs and their symptoms; and what consequences the employees will suffer if they fail to report MSDs, etc., early.

You also need to explain the kinds of risk factors, jobs and work activities associated with MSD activities. In addition, you must write a short description of the requirements of OSHA’s Ergonomics Program Standard. Finally, you must tell the employees how to report anything they have to report. That’s a heap of reading and writing to be done before October 15. But you’d better be prepared, should an actual MSD (or sign, or symptom) be reported, which will result in a whole new list of obligations.

"How Bern does go on!" you say to yourself. "Doesn’t he know that George W. Bush is president now and that he will write some kind of order that will stop the ergo standard dead in its tracks?"

That’s not the way it works — even though there are rumors that the Bush administration would promptly overturn the standard. "President Bush can’t do anything on his own to change things; he has no authority to do that," says Scott Railton, attorney at ReedSmith LLP. Railton also doubts that Congress will overturn the standard, even though there is an Act that lets Congress review regulations issued by government agencies.

"I doubt very much that Congress will kick the standard out," Railton says. "The numbers just don’t support that result." With the 50/50 split in the Senate, all the Republicans would have to hold together, which can’t be guaranteed. (Of course, there is also speculation that some Democrats would switch over, but that also belongs in the rumor basket.)

In addition, Railton doubts "that Congress would want to take on that bruising kind of fight, on either party’s part." So there’s the possibility that the "Perfect Standard" will hit your shore full force.

Maybe it’s time to look at 29 CFR 1910.900 more closely. Other recent OSHA standards that impact material handling have been rifle shots, specific solutions to specific problems: lockout/tagout of machinery, or training of lift truck operators, for example. The Ergonomics Program Standard, on the other hand, is a one-size-fits-all solution to industry-specific problems. You’ll have to interpret its provisions according to the way your company is structured, managed and operated.

But suppose that your company has set off the standard’s Action Trigger (that’s ergo-speak for an MSD incident that gets a poor rating in the standard) and you’re looking for the best solution. According to the standard, "engineering controls are the preferred method of control." But OSHA doesn’t think of engineering the way you and I do: Nowhere in the standard do you find the words automation, robots or mechanized material handling systems. That’s a big problem with 29 CFR 1910.900: you have to play by low-tech rules. Whatever the obstacles to complying with the standard, keep in mind the lawyerly advice of Scott Railton: "I don’t advise anybody to shrug their shoulders and say, ‘It’ll go away.’"

Bernie Knill

contributing editor

[email protected]

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